I don’t need to tell you that mainstream, major-label music is awful. I could simply play you something better and you’d figure it out. If you lived with me, this would be easy. My daily listening is a healthy dose of incredible, hand-crafted music by local artists serenading me throughout my day. But you don’t live with me, so how do I get you to listen?
If you have a smart speaker or assistant on your phone, try this: “Play Jonny Wagon and the Tennessee Sons.” I promise you’re going to rethink everything you thought you knew about music that is still being made today, often right under your nose in your own backyard. If you don’t follow local music, you’re in for a revelation. Queue it up while you read this feature on the man behind the band. Say it with me. “Play Jonny Wagon and the Tennessee Sons.”
I’ve been doing exactly this, listening to the Tennessee Son’s first EP as I drive to the El Cajon home of Jonathan Pruett, aka Jonny Wagon, to interview him about the new album he’s been working on for the better part of five years. I turn off my stereo as I pull up to Pruett’s house and catch him puttering in the garage. Arms covered in tattoos, with a musical note inked on his ring finger, framed by an open garage door with a Harley Davidson front and center, you don’t get the feeling Jonny Wagon is much into Yoga philosophies about “manifestation.” You won’t hear words like “Namaste” in his vocabulary either. But when he gets going, he is full of quotes like “If you look for the good, I believe you’ll find it. If you look for the bad, you’ll find that, too.”
His concept of karma is his own, beholden to no institutions. He doesn’t need to define himself for anyone, but he’s not hiding, either. “That’s who I am. That’s how I work. I’m not going to bullshit you.” It’s a refrain I’d just heard in my car, repeated in the song “Guilty Pleasure” from the first Tennessee Sons EP. “I’m a man who speaks for himself and lord, I just ain’t ever gonna lose it.” Some people talk about living their truth. Jonny just lives it. He speaks warmly of his family and his Southern roots growing up in Memphis, Tennessee, and you get the feeling you can ask him anything and you’ll get the unvarnished truth.
He is a man comfortable with his past but seems eager not to be weighed down by it. He wears where he’s from on his sleeve—quite literally—with tattoos of his mother and grandfather on each of his arms. But he is also very much about where he is now. “We don’t need to go into the dark points of my early life. Let’s just focus on this record, the music,” he tells me. If he’s got skeletons, he’s not hiding them, but he’s not inviting them to live in the main house.
He suggests we step into his garden patio for our interview, and we are suddenly surrounded by lush, well-cared-for ferns. He names each separate species with clear excitement about sharing this sanctuary with them. Suddenly that Harley feels like it lives somewhere else. But only because of our own misconceptions. These are not contradictions in Jonny’s world. Wagon sits down and sets a pack of American Spirits on the arm of his Adirondack chair. There are four chairs in the garden where we conduct the interview. I sit opposite Jonny and we are flanked by two dogs sitting in each chair to our left and right.
When Jonny says, “Music saves my life every day,” there’s an urgency in it to know this isn’t idle talk tossed casually about. While he’s not standing on the precipice, talking himself off the ledge when he sings the lyrics to “Hold On” off his new album, the sentiment clearly comes from a lived experience with friends who have stood on that ledge and were not able to find the balance to keep from going over.
I know our time here ain’t forever
So easy to get lost along the way
There’s just one thing you have to remember
That’s to hold on each and every day
Got to hold on…….
It’ll get easier someday|Got to hold on….
Yeah, the love will find us upon the way
Despite Jonny’s initial suggestions that we don’t need to get into the darkness of his past, he is quick to tell the origin story of the Tennessee Sons project, which is rooted in loss as much as it is in his earliest musical influences. This project started from a single song, what would become the title track of the first Tennessee Sons EP, Feels Good to Be Alive.
“It’s a very compelling story so we need to touch on it a little bit on how it all got started. Back in my early days I had this buddy Mark, a really good friend of mine who we used to tour with. I was on tour, and we were hanging out at his apartment one night listening to records. We were talking about ‘Man, it feels good. It feels good to be alive.’ You know. Like this. Little moments like this. Hanging out with your partners. It feels good to be alive.” And yet, despite this revelation, “About six months after this hangout, my friend committed suicide.” Jonny pauses to catch his breath and stammers just for a moment before continuing. His words come more slowly now, pausing often, as he chooses them wisely. “It really hit me hard. And I immediately went into my cave. And I started writing a song about that night and the first thing that came to me is ‘It feels good to be alive.’ And that’s the song right there. About six months after my buddy had committed suicide, my friend Matt’s fiancée committed suicide. He was so distraught that I confided in him…and I showed him this demo. This song that I had made… struck him so hard, he actually read the song at her eulogy.”
As if on cue, a crow flies over and caws loudly. We pause, exhale deeply and continue. We aren’t even five minutes into the interview and we’re digging in deep.
“It kind of snowballed from there. But he was like, ‘Are you doing anything right now? Are you working with anybody?’ And I was like, ‘Nah, man, but I have a boatload of songs in the wheelhouse.’ And he responded, ‘Let’s put a band together and bring this to life.’ He was so compelled by the one song, ‘Send Me Everything You’ve Got.’ And I immediately went to Daniel Crawford… and we brought in Jeff Hawthorne, Ben Zinn… all these guys…Andrés [Carreras Ponce] on bass, and that was the first genesis of the Tennessee Sons. And we wrote and recorded that first record.”
When you face deep pain and loss, it’s natural to retreat to your roots and the comforts of home. And that’s what Jonny did in the wake of this loss. His previous bands, like Behind the Wagon, traded in a more straight-forward, twangy rock ‘n’ roll sound, and while his Memphis upbringing can certainly be heard loud and clear in everything he does, his songwriting hadn’t fully embraced the R&B and soul music that was so close to his heart growing up. “To be quite honest with you, I never was comfortable with my singing until the Tennessee Sons.” He credits his band for the transformation, “because they were allowing me to be myself with this music that I love and grew up on, that’s how that confidence came out of that. I felt like I’d grown so much, and my voice had gotten stronger. And way more confident.”
As we talk, Ray Charles croons on the stereo. “One of my earliest memories is coming over to my grandfather’s house, and he’d be playing old Ray records and frying up that goodness in the iron skillet. He was the one who taught me all this, from Sam Cooke to Otis Redding to Ray to John Lee Hooker, Aretha… the whole idea when I started this is that I wanted to get back to what I grew up with in Memphis. That garage, soul, roots rock ‘n’ roll. That’s what I wanted to do with this project. I’d never done that before. In all of my bands, I’d never done my roots.”
When I ask him about the saxophone that is so prominent on Tennessee Sons recordings, he says, “I wanted to get back to the days when saxophone was the main instrument. Before the days of Jimmy Page and George Harrison and the electric guitar was screaming solos. Back in the day, the Little Richard days, the saxophone was the main guy. Back in those days, they were the stars.”
So, he put this project together around that idea.
That was 2018. “Our first show was at the Casbah. It was our CD release and hat sold out. Riding off the success of that record and a lot of amazing shows” gave Jonny a clarity of vision. “Let’s do the follow up, because that first one was just an EP. And we get in the studio, and Daniel is engineering [at Singing Serpent], and we get pretty close. And then Covid hits.”
He stops and lets out an awkward laugh.
“And we all know the story of that. It just put a hold on everyone.”
In late 2022, Jonny decided: “Now that things are opening up again, let’s add to this and finish this record.”
“Let’s get everything we had pre-Covid and go back into Singing Serpent and add what I’d written during Covid times; Ben Moore is going to mix and engineer it. We’ve been working on a lot of stuff this year, but just finishing the record, we wanted to have the best record, the best artwork, so we’re not short changing ourselves on this record. We want it to be the best thing we’ve done.”
The new record is “still in the same vein as Feels Good to Be Alive,” but we’ve brought in some really heavy hitters, especially with the horn section.” Despite his singular vision for this album, he’s quick to credit his band for bringing it to fruition. “The beauty of a band is you come together to create that sound together, not just ‘this one person.’ So everyone I brought to this wanted to do this sound—like-minded people who were into that vision.”
We move inside to listen to a preview of his yet-to-be-titled new album, and he cues up a couple of songs. On the left side of the coffee table there is a book on Bruce Springsteen stacked on top of Honky Tonk Girl: My Life in Lyrics, by Loretta Lynn. I’m reminded that Jonny lives with another terrific songwriter, his partner in life and local legend, Sara Petite. On the right side of the same coffee table is Land of the Eagle, A Natural History of North America. We quiet down and settle into listening mode.
When I ask how this record compares to the last Tennessee Sons record, Jonny says, “It’s got a little more soul and a little more edge. It’s a lot more upbeat than the last one.” He snaps his fingers, “A little more jumpy and this one’s full-length. I let the guys do their thing on this. Especially with the horn players. I let them have free range. They’re old school dudes, so they didn’t really need much production.”
Jonny Wagon wasn’t always ours to claim. Or at least not Jonathan Pruett, the man leading the Wagon. When I mention hearing a zydeco influence in his music, he says, “My daddy’s family is from New Orleans. He actually was born in a little farm town in Missouri, but his mother’s family is from New Orleans and we used to go down there and spend summers there. So, all that culture was absorbed at an early age, and I still love it to this day. My momma’s family are all from Nashville. My parents met in Memphis; that’s where my family started.”
As much as his upbringing shaped him, John Fogerty and Creedence Clearwater Revival were also a huge influence. “That’s the American Beatles as far as I’m concerned. They’re a bunch of Northern California kids who sing about where I come from.”
So, when Pruett headed west from Memphis at 23 years old, he didn’t move to San Diego directly; he moved to the land of Creedence. “I had no experience. When I moved out here, I packed up my guitar, my clothes, and my dog, and I left and moved to San Franscisco where I lived out of my car. That’s when I started getting things to write about. Experience. I couch surfed, lived out of my van, I’d met some people up there and I was like, ‘Man, does it ever get warm up here? I wanna see girls in thongs and bikinis’ and they’re like, ‘You want to go to Southern California.’
He continues, “So I packed up my shit, came down here, and got my first apartment in Ocean Beach.” And it was here that “Jonny Wagon” was born.
Now, at 46, Jonny says, “I’ve been in California just as long as I was in Memphis, so according to my family, and you can quote this, ‘You’re a damn Yankee now, boy!’” He laughs, but I can’t help but think, just maybe, these albums are his answer to those allegations.
When I ask if his parents were musical, Jonny says, “Not to the extent that I am, but my dad did play drums. My mother had a nylon string guitar, and she sang and played Bob Dylan and Joan Baez to me at an early age. So, I always had an instrument around the house. Even as early as five years old we’d have the family over, and I’d get on top of my bunkbed with my mom’s guitar and lip-sync Eddie Rabbitt songs for all the family and the bunk bed would be my stage.”
He underscores his family’s influence as he continues, “My grandfather taught me rhythm and blues and jazz. My grandmother is where the honky-tonk came from. She loved Charlie Rich and Conway Twitty and Charlie Pride and all those balladeers, George Jones.”
Going back to Fogerty, “My voice always had a knack for that style. And all those guys, from Rod Stewart to John Fogerty, are all Otis Redding, Sam Cooke guys. When I discover an artist, I want to dive deep into what they were influenced by, I want to learn those guys. When people ask me, ‘What are you into these days?’ I’m like, I’m still trying to catch up to 100 years ago, to artists I still haven’t discovered yet. Age has no boundary on learning.”
Jonny is clearly house-proud. I’ve known him for awhile now, and I’ve never seen him as comfortable as he is sitting in his newly acquired home listening to these mixes of his latest work. Yes, his home sits squarely on the West Coast, but it’s bordering East County, which is as close as you’ll get to the South while maintaining driving distance to everything San Diego has to offer. “I know all these people, these musicians that are moving to Nashville, but there is a great longing for Americana here in Southern California. Another cool thing about doing it out here is you don’t have all the competition that you do out there. Nashville is basically Los Angeles where it was back in the day. Everyone’s flocking there to get their big record deal. It’s a pop town.”
Clearly, Jonny isn’t looking to make pop records. He’s digging for the soul. I ask when his latest effort will be available and he says, “We’re looking to have the record out, by January 2024 at the latest.” As of this publication, that puts it just a little over a month away.
As we wrap up our interview, I ask Jonny if there’s a question I should have asked but didn’t. He notes that I never asked why he is so committed to this endeavor. “Do you do this for love or for money?” he asks himself. His answer is steadfast and clear. “I would say neither. I did this for myself. For my sanity. Because if I would have never had this channel or this avenue, I would be dead already.”
I ask if he believes that literally. Has music saved his life? Jonny breaks out one last piece of downhome philosophy to leave us with.
“I think it’s saved all our lives. If you’re looking for a better life, a lot of times it’ll find you. If you’re not, then it won’t. Sometimes it can be that simple. Hold on. It will get easier if your heart’s open to it. It started out about loss and then about hope. We all lose, every single day. But there’s still hope.”